Slippery when All Wet, or Duplo Dogma
This is the introduction of Rob Vanhoff’s review of Boaz Michael’s book Tent of David: Healing the Vision of the Messianic Gentile.
Do you remember Duplos (the big, clunky toys made by Lego)? My kids used to play with them when they were little. You can have a lot of fun with them, especially when the kids are into it, but the color and size options are very limited and whatever you build will soon fall apart anyway. Moreover, as my kids grew, their motor skills became more refined and their interests moves to more specialized Lego sets with smaller (and easier to lose!) pieces, from which much more intricate and magnificent creations soon emerged. There are even Robot Legos now!
I liken some of our religious terminology to giant Duplo pieces. Take â€œJudaismâ€ and â€œChristianityâ€ for instance. How much stock should we place in these terms? Do they help us think clearly, or do the ideas we build with them always fall apart? When it comes to religion, they can sometimes get so slippery theyâ€™re almost of no use at all.
Iâ€™m not saying we should get rid of these terms; only that they have their place and that their place is limited. Case in point: There are Christians who will proudly call themselves Christians. But there are also people who identify as Christians that other self-identifying Christians will say are not truly Christians. In the same way, there are Jews who call themselves Jews. But there are self-identifying Jews that other Jews will say are not â€œreallyâ€ Jews. To add a layer of complexity: there are Christian Jews who proudly call themselves Christians, and there are Jewish â€œbelievers in Yeshuaâ€ who donâ€™t want to be called Christians but want to be called Jews (especially by other â€œrealâ€ Jews). If youâ€™re like me, you probably know or have met people from each of these categories. So whatâ€™s going on here? How helpful is it for us to use terminology that isnâ€™t all that helpful? What are we trying to accomplish here anyway?
Now letâ€™s add â€œMessianicâ€ to the mix. There are apparently Messianic Jews and Messianic Gentiles. Some say Messianic Jews belong in Judaism and Messianic Gentiles belong in Christianity. That sounds nice and orderly. But if this is the case, in what way is the term â€œMessianicâ€ even helpful? And who gets to define â€œChristianityâ€ and â€œJudaismâ€ anyway?
Duplos, all of them.
In the first century, such struggle to define terms was very real. In this case, the terms were not like our slippery notions of â€œChristianityâ€ and â€œJudaism.â€ They were much more specific and critical. Paulâ€™s wonderful Epistle to the Galatians is a great example. Keywords like â€œMessiah,â€ â€œGospel,â€ â€œTorah,â€ â€œSon of Abraham,â€ Â â€œJerusalem,â€ â€œSinai,â€ â€œCircumcision,â€ and â€œForeskinâ€ were all highly charged symbols that had already circulated throughout the Greek speaking Diaspora for centuries. They were â€œhotâ€ in the market of Jewish speculation about redemption and the promises of God. Groups were not arguing whether or not these symbols were in fact â€œJewish.â€ Rather, they argued about what these symbols meant; what â€œtrueâ€ significance they held within Godâ€™s unfolding plan. Different groups had different takes, but they more or less agreed on what terms were in the vocabulary. These keywords had what I call ideological currency. In other words, Jews didnâ€™t have to sell that there was a Torah or a messianic hope or even a Ioudaismos (Greek term from which we get the English word Judaism). Â What they sold was the â€œspinâ€; the Â â€œtrueâ€ Torah, and the â€œcorrectâ€ Messiah, â€œproperâ€ Sabbath observance, Â the â€œrealâ€ Israel, etc.
In the midst of all this zeal to bring clarity to these common and powerful Jewish symbols, the first believers in Yeshua knowingly risked everything by making a bold, life-endangering assertion. Speculation was over. The widely recognized hot-topic word â€œMessiahâ€ (big â€œMâ€!) was once-and-for-all identified with a certain flesh-and-blood person: Yeshua of Nazareth. Unique among all the messianic movements of antiquity, Yeshuaâ€™s disciples continued to call Him â€œMessiahâ€ long after His death. They didnâ€™t go out and find a â€œreplacementâ€ leader or dissolve the company, as other groups did. No! They continued, in the face of great persecution, to proclaim that the Psalms (2 and 110, for instance) and other Scriptures had been fulfilled. Yeshua had not only risen from the dead, but had ascended to the right hand of the Father! Praise Adonai!
â€œMessiahâ€ is not the only term they clarified. The â€œGospelâ€ was for the whole world, Jews and Gentiles alike. All His disciples, regardless of ethnicity, were taught and aspired to walk in His Torah. By faith in Messiah Yeshua, individuals become â€œchildren of Abraham,â€ and were recognized so by the community of believers. Of course, none of these â€œdefinitionsâ€ sat well with Jewish authorities, but Yeshua anticipated this conflict. The â€œruleâ€ of His community would reflect a new expression of love, holiness, and humility: Any who would seek to leverage their â€œJewishnessâ€ to justify exclusion of a Gentile would find quick, and sometimes harsh, correction. Gentiles, taking note of the many worldly and/or â€œunbelievingâ€ Jews, might boast that God had entirely forsaken them and now favors Gentiles instead. This attitude would be corrected also. (On the contrary, the Gospel was to be preached to Jews first!) In seeking to obey the Torah of the Messiah, insecure Gentile males sometimes felt they had to follow the teachings of Jews that were not committed to the Gospel message but yet seemed to teach the â€œrealâ€ Torah. This too was corrected.
As time went on, Messiahâ€™s words became fulfilled. Believers in Yeshua, Jews and perhaps even some Gentiles, were expelled from the synagogues. This is an important point to remember. Yeshua did not teach that there would be a â€œparting of the ways,â€ or that â€œChristianityâ€ would separate from its mother religion â€œJudaism,â€ or any other of the popular models you might hear or read today. No! He said that His followers would be kicked out of the Jewish communities, and that the leaders doing so would believe it was Godâ€™s will. Saul of Tarsus was one of the more zealous Jews with this type of thinking, persecuting and putting to death believers in the name of God and the traditions equated with â€œTorah.â€
But in his epistle to the Galatians, Paul makes it absolutely clear that he had been dead wrong. Same symbols, but wrong spin. In his letters, the Apostle goes to great lengths to clarify for us the meaning of central Judaic symbols in light of the revelation of Yeshua the Messiah. Often we find him directly or indirectly engaged polemically with groups that are peddling other, contrary definitions. It gets heated! For Paul, his were not â€œoptionalâ€ definitions, or â€œpossibleâ€ interpretations among many. He was specific, precise, and exclusive. The truth of the Gospel was at stake.
We will give account for every idle word we speak. Let us not settle for Duplo thinking, but rather strive to be clear in our communication. If we donâ€™t fully grasp a concept, or if we find a term particularly â€œslippery,â€ let us remember to slow down, take some time, and seek Adonai. Ask Him for patience and understanding. Talk to a friend or a teacher. Give yourself permission to ask whether youâ€™re imposing a slippery word or concept where it doesnâ€™t belong, or even whether the person confusing you is â€œall wetâ€!